Wabi-Sabi of Photography and Why I Stopped Chasing Perfection

Wabi-Sabi of Photography and Why I Stopped Chasing Perfection by James Tocchio (Casual Photophile)

Seventeen years ago I began paying attention to my photography. That’s when I bought my first camera with my own money, a five megapixel Minolta DSLR. I spent that winter trying to make good photos. I bought snowshoes, and stamped alone through the woods every time it snowed. I spent hours and days making pictures of frozen lakes and gleaming icicles and brilliant white flurries frozen in midair by a burst of light from an on-camera flash. I shot in program mode, because this made the most perfect pictures. They were perfect recordings.

In a National Geographic Guide to Digital Photography, I read about sharpness and making a proper exposure, and ISO, and how to eliminate digital noise and why distortion is bad. I read about zoom lenses, and fast apertures, and how to get rid of undesirable motion blur, and how to compose an image, and about which camera brand had the fastest and most accurate auto-focus system. I internalized this knowledge deeply and automatically.

A year later, I spent significantly more money to buy a better camera with more megapixels, ten this time, and a zoom lens. I went back to the woods and shot sharper pictures of snow and sky, and bright birds hunkered against the backdrop of white and blue, the bark of the trees slick and black from the melt under a late-winter sun. Flurries were now frozen in midair by a burst of light from an off-camera thyristor flash. The pictures were good. I was getting closer to perfect. I just needed to buy some more gear, and then I’d get there.

Over the next ten years I pursued taking objectively better photos, the type that the pros made, the type that I saw on posters. To do this, I bought the best of everything. The best cameras with the best lenses, the best tripods and filters. The best memory storage and the best Apple computer with the best display. Finally, my landscape photos were clinically perfect. Sharp edge to edge with no distortion.

My photos were approaching closer and closer to perfection. And becoming more and more boring. And I was enjoying photography less and less.

When I embraced film, everything changed. But not because film was inherently better than digital. I won’t profess that nonsense. Film isn’t as good as digital. Not as good, at least, at making perfect photos. The difference was (and remains) that when I shot film I would accidentally make many more imperfect photos than I was capable of making with my digital gear. Digital is, after all, much easier and much closer to perfection. My film photos weren’t perfect, they weren’t even good, and it was frustrating until I began to see things differently.

That was the big change. When I began to see photography at large in a different way. When I realized that my “bad” film photos were actually more beautiful, more full of life than my digital photos. When I realized that perfection is overrated. That the clinical precision of the best digital camera can create a perfect reproduction of whatever I point it at, yes, but where’s the fun in that? The best painting in the world will always be more moving than the best photo in the world. I always wanted to be a painter. Unfortunately, I’m a terrible painter. Shooting film gets me closer.

But it wasn’t really film that helped me find peace in my photography. Film just opened my eyes to the fact that I didn’t need to be perfect. I could abandon the quest and find freedom in the failure. I could choose limitation, and embrace limitation, and switch off of program mode and shoot by feel. I could choose whatever film I felt like choosing, and not worrying that the National Geographic Guide to Whatever told me to choose a higher ISO. Peace came when I embraced imperfection in my photography, and when I embraced imperfection in my abilities as a photographer.

Beautiful! This essay spoke to me.

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Child, Dress, Pink, Baby


Content Trumps All by Otto von Münchow

I have come to realize that the most important building block in photography is content—or subject if you will. In fact, it’s more than just a building block, it’s what a photograph is about, or ought to be about. It can be a story, it can be an emotion, it can be a statement, but a photograph has to be about something more than just visual appealing elements. The equivalent goes for writing, for instance. You can write the most beautiful sentences imaginable, but if they don’t tell the reader anything, nobody is ever gonna care.

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